How next-gen tech solves today’s challenges while shaping tomorrow’s store

NRF 2021 – Chapter 1: Retail innovators from Allbirds, Endear and Shopify on what’s working and what's not
Fiona Soltes
NRF Contributor

Tech advances can be impressive. But if the past year has taught us one thing, there’s still nothing that beats the human-to-human connection.

“Technologies Shaping the Store of 2025,” during NRF 2021: Retail’s Big Show – Chapter 1, explored what omnichannel really means today, with consumers still wanting curation, personal guidance and authentic connection, regardless of how they shop.

Pano Anthos, founder and managing director of XRC Labs, introduced his “killer panel” for the session, including “one early-stage startup focused on optimizing retail stores with marketing technology, one major platform player, and one next-generation brand who is managing both retail and online sales.” Those representatives included Leigh Sevin, co-founder of Endear; Arpan Podduturi, director of product, retail with Shopify; and Travis Boyce, head of global retail operations at Allbirds.

Retail technology

Check out other ways retail technology is shaping the future of the industry here.

Podduturi fielded the first question about where Shopify is focused given recent retail challenges. As with all industries, Podduturi said, the pandemic has “pulled the future forward.”

“In the world of commerce, the things we thought we would see in 2030 are now things that we’re seeing today,” he said. “At the beginning of this thing, we as a company decided to kind of blow up our roadmaps. We deleted all of our plans. The focus was really, how do we get entrepreneurs and small- and medium-sized businesses through this generational crisis?”

Earlier last year, he said, Shopify launched a new point of sale that made omnichannel selling easier. The company also began offering capabilities including buy online, pickup in store, curbside pickup and local delivery.

“We made improvements to our online store,” he said, “started granting more capital to small merchants, and just kept doing deals with social commerce players because we just felt like, wherever commerce was happening, was where we wanted to be.”

At Allbirds, meanwhile, with overall traffic down, the focus for the foreseeable future “is really the health and safety of our team, and making sure that when there are customers in the store, we’re focusing on the things we can control — focusing on conversion, focusing on NPS and that experience,” Boyce said.

He does see a light at the tunnel, brightened by the return to business in other countries further past COVID-19. The company is taking a “cautious but optimistic approach,” Boyce said, in terms of imminent North American expansion. “We are committed to the bricks-and-mortar channel for the long haul.”

“We are committed to the bricks-and-mortar channel for the long haul.”

Travis Boyce, head of global retail operations at Allbirds

That said, the physical store continues to morph into more of a hub, with shoppers wanting to, for example, buy online and return in store. The concept also incorporates being able to spend more time in local communities, Boyce said, engaging in events as they open back up.

COVID-19, Boyce said, has accelerated his company’s desire to be more of an omnichannel retailer, thinking about the customer more holistically. Previously, it had been focused on an amazing in-store experience. “I don’t think we wanted to learn how to sprint before we learned how to crawl.”

Sevin spoke about Endear’s partnership with Shopify; Endear is a retail-specific customer relationship management system that connects directly to a store owner’s Shopify data, which is then passed along to the sales team for high-touch clienteling. Shopify, she said, is “creating space for apps like Endear to come in and really provide better service, but in a way that is a) scalable for us, and b) affordable for the merchant.”

Allbirds is considering how to scale its personalized approach, as its teams do know who their best customers are, recognize them when they return, recommend products and work to surprise and delight them. Podduturi said appointment scheduling apps that help consumers book in-store shopping are one possibility, as they’re opt-in on both sides, organic and potentially less creepy than, say, facial recognition technologies for customer acknowledgment. Purchase history, preferences and other information can be shared ahead of time.

Like many retailers, Boyce said his company also is exploring inventory visibility and accuracy across the supply chain, as it would have benefits across the business. “We want to make sure we’ve got everything buttoned up, and that we understand our business as it is, before we take on more complexity,” he said.

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